A handful of home losses last season -- yep, the whole five -- caused Duke to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.
It’s all been reversed this season as the Blue Devils, dominant on their Cameron Indoor Stadium home court, are back in their rightful place among the 64 teams competing for the women’s basketball national championship.
“It gives us tremendous confidence just playing at home,” Duke guard Kyra Lambert said. “It’s a great spot to be in Cameron Indoor Stadium and having our crowd here, so it gives us a great boost.”
The Blue Devils (27-5) are 16-0 at home this season. A year ago, losses at home to unranked teams Georgia Tech and N.C. State led to a 20-12 record and the first NCAA Tournament without Duke since 1994.
This season, Duke owns home wins over six ranked teams and seven teams that made the NCAA Tournament. Teams included in both lists are South Carolina, a No. 1 seed Duke beat 74-63, three No. 4 seeds in Louisville, Miami and Kentucky plus No. 8 seed Syracuse.
Duke’s outstanding season earned it a chance to open at home along with the other top 16 seeds in the field. The Blue Devils play No. 15 seed Hampton, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, on Saturday night (9 p.m., ESPN2).
A win would earn Duke one final home game in Monday’s second round against the winner of Saturday night’s 6:30 p.m. game between Temple and Oregon at Cameron.
“It’s great,” Duke redshirt junior Rebecca Greenwell said. “It’s definitely going to be a big advantage for us. It’s nice to have a home crowd here for us as well. We had a good season at home and want to continue that.”
Playing at home in the NCAA Tournament is actually a routine for Duke, last season notwithstanding. Now in her 10th season as Duke’s coach, Joanne P. McCallie has seen her Blue Devils earn opening round home games in five of those seasons, including three consecutive tournaments from 2013-15.
On the few times Duke has headed on the road to star the NCAA Tournament, McCallie has actually said it could do the team well because there’s a bonding experience with traveling and playing away from home.
But for this season’s group, the camaraderie fueled by success has them right where they need to be this weekend.
“You just have to manage whatever situation you’re in, but obviously it is an honor to be at home,” McCallie said. “It is an honor for Duke and wonderful for our team, but it is what you make of it. This is a new season. I don’t look for anything to be an advantage unless it is created. This is a tournament of winners. Everyone can play, so I think that is an important concept.”
Hampton (20-12) and Duke are playing for the third time in the last seven NCAA Tournaments. The Blue Devils ended the Pirates’ seasons in 2010 and 2013 in first-round games at Cameron.
In addition to being unbeaten at home this season, Duke is also perfect in situations like it will face on Saturday night.
The Blue Devils are 8-0 in NCAA Tournament games against No. 15 seeds and have a 15-0 all-time record against MEAC teams
Still, Duke will have to overcome an odd circumstance. The Blue Devils haven’t played since March 5 when they lost to Notre Dame 81-63 in the ACC Tournament championship game at Conway, South Carolina.
By the time they tip off against Hampton late Saturday night, it will be nearly two full weeks since they played a game.
“The challenge for us, and pretty much everyone else depending on when you played in the (conference) tournament, is to be sharp and to come out ready to go,” McCallie said “I, like everyone else, cannot wait to see what we have at 9. Hopefully, it is pretty fierce intensity of what we’re trying to accomplish. As you know, it’s a long wait. You have to focus.”